Newsmaker: The Equaliser - Tony Manwaring, Chief executive, Scope

Indira Das-Gupta

As you walk into Scope's head office in north London, you are greeted by the hammering of builders and engulfed by a fog of dust. But it is not just its office that is undergoing a facelift. For Scope, too, it is a time of re-invention - a Time to Get Equal, as its current campaign proclaims.

"Most disabled people in this country lead exhausting and poor lives," says chief executive Tony Manwaring. "They face so many barriers that they have to make do with just getting by. But they do this in isolation, and they end up becoming invisible in society. That has got to change."

Time to Get Equal epitomises Scope's new direction, and Manwaring is confident it will help the charity gain more credibility within the disabled-rights movement. The campaign is backed by Nelson Mandela, who has joined the call for supporters to sign an equality pledge - 20,000 have signed so far.

Getting people to sign a pledge might not have an obvious practical impact on the lives of disabled people, but Manwaring believes it will help boost awareness. He says: "Some very rich conversations are taking place on our Time to Get Equal website. It is also important that disabled people have a forum where they can share experiences."

An issue that comes up time and again on the website is accessibility.

From 1 October this year, the Disability Discrimination Act has required businesses and service providers to make reasonable physical adjustments to their premises so disabled people can use them. As part of Scope's Free2pee campaign, 1,000 supporters visited more than 1,300 venues on 1 October. They found that 81 per cent had one or more access barriers, 64 per cent had no accessible toilet, and 61 per cent of supposedly accessible toilets weren't. There is still great room for improvement, and Manwaring intends to lead by example - hence all the building work.

Manwaring demonstrated his commitment to change within his own organisation with the appointment of Andy Rickell as executive director for diversity and corporate planning earlier this year. As chief executive of the British Council of Disabled People, Rickell was critical of Scope and other big disability charities that employ few disabled people. His appointment raised a few eyebrows, yet Manwaring is clearly annoyed when asked what Rickell has brought to the charity. "It says more about the people who think it was controversial than it does about Andy or Scope," he says.

"He is intelligent and passionate. Quite simply, he is the best man for the job, so what's controversial about that?"

Rickell's decision to take the post was heavily influenced by the fact that it was only open to disabled applicants. Of 4,000 Scope employees, only 150 are disabled. Scope is planning to increase that to 20 per cent by 2007 to mirror the percentage of working age adults who are disabled.

He says: "If we do it, we will have the largest proportion of disabled employees of any large organisation in the UK."

Manwaring wants to review the whole employment ethos at Scope. He says: "It's about being a better employer of disabled people and recognising that impairments can actually be an asset."

Language has been an important tool in Manwaring's quest to reposition Scope. The wording of the advert for Rickell's post was chosen carefully, asking for applications from people who were "disabled by society". Manwaring frequently refers to "disablism" when talking about prejudice against disabled people. The word has been used for years within the disabled rights movement, but Manwaring claims Scope was the first to take it into the mainstream.

He explains: "There's huge ignorance and prejudice - which is disablism. If you can't name it, you can't change it." Manwaring believes disablism is as real as sexism or racism, but insists that he doesn't want to get into a "hierarchy of isms". He adds: "There is a presumption among some that disabled people are inferior. This justifies oppressive behaviour and means people are not even aware that they are being prejudiced. This to me is institutionalised disablism."

In his pre-Scope days, Rickell condemned the lack of disabled people at senior level in disability charities as a form of disablism. He said: "These people are seen as the face of the organisation - so what are you saying if a disability organisation has the faces of non-disabled people?" Using this logic, one might ask why a disabled person wasn't given the top job at Scope, but Manwaring defends his position.

"I was appointed by the board of trustees, most of whom are disabled," he says. "I think they would say it's my commitment to human rights that makes me right for the job. If Time to Get Equal succeeds, it follows that I should be succeeded by a disabled person."

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